André Leon Talley went to Brooklyn on Wednesday night. In his signature look of a flowing red caftan, the fashion insider and former Vogue editor at large shared war stories from what he called the “chiffon trenches” during a conversation with journalist Tamron Hall at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Hall dressed up for the event — her Balenciaga dress, in what Talley identified as Schiaparelli pink, had a thigh-high slit that revealed bright purple Balenciaga spandex boots.
Introducing Talley, Hall called him a friend and a “black superhero,” and said the evening would be an “opportunity to go into the heart and soul of what I believe is one of the most amazing human beings to walk the planet.”
Talley glided out of the wings to a standing ovation from the packed house. “It’s very atmospheric, very chic,” he noted approvingly of BAM’s Harvey Theater.
During the next hour and a half, Talley recounted his life, from his roots in North Carolina, where he was raised by his churchgoing grandmother who supported him by working as a maid at Duke, to his rise to become a larger-than-life personality.
“The most important thing in my life in this moment is to just remember the precious memories of my childhood,” the 68-year-old Talley explained. “All the great things I learned that got me through to today come from my grandmother.”
Below are some choice quotes from the eminently quotable Talley:
On what Diana Vreeland, who Talley called a second grandmother and mentor, saw in him:
“I was skinny, like a lead pencil. I was so tall — and perhaps handsome. And I knew something. They didn’t keep me because of my looks, they kept me because of my knowledge.
“I didn’t just walk into a room and say “I’m all that and a bag of chips.” I had something to say.”
On his early inspirations:
“I was a bit of a loner, so reading was a very good friend to me. I escaped into the pages of Vogue. I read every caption, every page. When I was 12, I said I want to be a fashion editor. I was extremely, extremely obsessed by the world of Vogue.
“Another great thing was to escape into the world of Julia Child. She’d drop a chicken! And pick it up and keep going! I thought it was the most original thing.”
“I owe a great deal to a great, great man who recently passed away, John Fairchild. Mrs. Vreeland taught me the romanticism of clothes. Mr. Fairchild taught me the skills of reporting on clothes.
“Fashion in 1978 was very much more a rarefied world. It was very small, and very special. There were no bloggers, no Instagram, no Twitter. Everyone looked to Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue.”
On diversity in fashion magazines:
“I worked behind the scenes. I did it in dulcet tones, and I was persistent and tenacious….I always assumed a very quiet role. I didn’t scream and yell and shout….That was the best strategy, because that was the world I moved in. After all, it was Vogue, darling.
“Grace Coddington used to come and say, “What do you think of my pictures?” Sometimes she would ask, “Do you think this will fly with your people?”
“The current first lady is the best thing about the Trump administration. She’s like a “Mona Lisa” sphinx. She doesn’t tell you who she is, but she expresses herself through her clothes.
“You do not tell Michelle Obama anything. Michelle Obama knew what she was doing. She didn’t need my advice. She had great style, and she inspired a lot of women with how she mixed high and low. She was extraordinary. And is extraordinary. Not only for her fashion but also for her advocacy.
“I think that all great first ladies go beyond the fashion they are wearing. Look at Eleanor Roosevelt. She was fabulous, because she was for us.”
On Kellyanne Conway’s inauguration look:
“I think she was dressed like a Nutcracker. I think she went downstairs to Gucci in the Trump Tower, and bought that off the rack and then went home to New Jersey. That was a drive-by purchase.”
On the state of the fashion industry:
“I happen to think fashion in a broad sense is in a crisis. I can’t quite explain why….Fashion is in a funk, I think.”
On the value of fashion:
“Fashion lifts you up out of the doldrums.
“It is a moral code to dress well. Whatever your budget — you can wear a white shirt from Banana Republic and be well dressed.”
On the most important thing a woman should own:
“Confidence — and anything you decide can help you get up and down the stairs of life.”